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Wednesday
Feb212007

Propitiation: What It Means, and Simpler Translation Possibilities

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post that brought up the subject of propitiation, but at that time, I didn’t write anything about the meaning of the word propitiation because it wasn’t necessary to do so in order to make the point of that particular post. Propitiation is a good word, but it’s not one that’s used in everyday language, is it? I’d be willing to bet that if you did street interviews asking random people to define propitiation, you’d go a long time before you found someone who could define it properly.
 
So what does it mean? It’s a word that’s used in some versions of the Bible in the translation of a family of Greek words: hilasmos and other words related to it. It may be that you use a translation that doesn’t used the word propitiation at all, since many versions make other translational choices. Still, it’s a good thing to understand what it means, at the very least in order to understand this facet of what Christ’s death accomplished for us.
 
Propitiation and the Greek words it translates have to do with turning away or appeasing anger. It has everything to do with dealing with anger or wrath, and in the New Testament, it’s God’s wrath that is being turned away or propitiated. Propitiation is a personal word. Let me quote Leon Morris:
…[I]f we speak of propitiation we are thinking of a personal process. We are saying that God is angry when people sin and that, if they are to be forgiven, something must be done about that anger. We are further saying that the death of Christ is the means of removing the divine wrath from sinners.*
Despite the fact that it’s and uncommon five-syllable word, it’s not really a difficult concept, is it?
 
There are scholars, as you might expect, who disagree that the words translated by propitiation must carry with them the idea of divine wrath, at least as far as the wrath of God refers to anything more than impersonal natural consequences of sin. I’ve read some of the arguments and I didn’t find them very convincing. It seems the whole case rests, first of all, on the assumption that the wrath of God is not something personal, but rather an impersonal process of cause (in this case, sin) and effect (disasters and other things deemed to be sin’s natural consequences). Then, given that assumption, examples are collected, from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) and other sources, where hilaskomai and other related words wouldn’t necessarily have to carry the idea of wrath. All in all, without the assumption that God doesn’t have personal wrath, it seems a rather weak argument. After all, just because a word might not need to carry an idea in a certain context doesn’t mean that it doesn’t carry that idea. You don’t define words by what they might not mean in certain places.
 
If you take scripture seriously, it’s hard to take seriously the assumption that God doesn’t have personal wrath. Even in the New Testament, we find significant mention of God’s wrath, and it certainly seems to be something more than just the natural or impersonal consequence of sin. Rather, God’s wrath is frequently used—or so it would seem to me—in relation to God’s personal action in response to sin. God is said, for instance, to give people over to the results of their sin, and the wrath of God is said to be revealed from heaven against unrighteousness (See Romans 1).
 
If you allow from the get-go that God has personal wrath against sin and sinners, then we need something that turns his wrath away from us. We need all those hilasmos related words to be propitiation, and nothing less than that. We don’t need to use the exact word propitiation, but we need something that means it.
 
And I’m of the opinion that since propitiation isn’t an English word that’s commonly used, it’s a good idea to have a few translations that use more common words to express the same idea. It’s easy enough to say that everyone should just learn and remember what the word means, but not everyone will; and, for various reasons, not everyone does well with big uncommon words.
 
If we were to replace propitiation with something else in order to make things simpler to understand, what would be a good substitute? The word expiation isn’t the best replacement for two reasons. First of all, I doubt that expiation is much clearer in meaning for most people than propitiation. Secondly, expiation doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as propitiation, since it doesn’t specifically have to do with turning away personal wrath. In fact, this particular substitute comes out of the argument that God’s wrath is simply the impersonal natural consequences of sin.
 
In some translations, means of propitiation or propitiation in Romans 3:25 is replaced by mercy seat or sacrifice of atonement. Neither of these necessarily carry with them in the common understanding the idea of averting God’s personal wrath, although technically, they probably do. But what they mean technically doesn’t help when our goal is to have things stated in commonly understood language. Translations that talk about Christ taking away sin or being a sacrifice for sin aren’t good replacements for propitiation in this verse, either, since they don’t necessarily carry the whole meaning of propitiation, and understanding the whole deal is especially important when the context of the word is an argument for every single person being an object of God’s wrath. My own favorite replacement for the difficult term means of propitiation in this verse is found in the footnotes of the NIV: the one who would turn aside his [God’s] wrath.
 
Some wording similar to this would probably work in every place—there are only four of them—where propitiation is used in the New Testament. In Hebrews 2:17, where Christ, as priest, is said to make propitiation, we might say that he “turns away God’s wrath.” In 1 John 2:2, “he is the propitiation” could be “he is the one who turns away God’s wrath.” Same thing in 1 John 4:11: “the propitiation” becomes “the one who would turn away God’s wrath.”
 
I suppose, if you were a translator, you’d be hoping for a phrase with less words than this, but I can’t think of a simpler way to do it without losing some of the meaning of the original language. What do you think? What word or words would you suggest to communicate the whole meaning of the original, which includes the idea of God’s personal wrath against sin, without using the word propitiation? Or perhaps you’d prefer to always keep the word propitiation. If so, why not explain why you think that’s the best option?
 
*Leon Morris, The Atonement: It’s Meaning and Significance, page 152.

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Reader Comments (2)

Thank you for this clearly worded explanation of the work 'propitiation". This I believe is at the very heart of the gospel and is something that one seldom hears preached today which is so sad.

December 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

The best words in language are ones that do not have synonyms and therefore require a distinct definition. Propitiation is one of those words. There really aren't any perfect replacement words. I agree that it is better to include a phrase when translating it rather than an insufficient single word. However, it seems as though the Christian church needs to be a better job of educating Christians about such words rather than attempt to explain its meaning through the translations themselves. The translations such as ESV, NKJ, and NASB have taken the right approach by using "propitiation." Better than those who try to interpret it with a phrase like "atoning sacrifice." That still begs an explanation for atonement and sacrifice. Your proverbial people on the street wouldn't be able to adequately explain either of those theological concepts either. The Bible is full of such concepts (justification, redemption, sanctification). If we dumbed down every word that is challenging to understand, I'm afraid we'd overly simplify the entire scripture.

January 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGarry

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